Friday, June 5, 2009

Prehistory of Craft

Today, when someone asks "what is Craft" they often mean, "what is the difference between Craft and Art"? I probably have opinions on that, but it isn't really how I think about craft. My background is in archaeology, not art, so I tend to think about craft as the way people made objects out of necessity before the industrial revolution and by choice afterward. The aspect of the Arts and Crafts movement of a century ago that appeals to me is the call to return to handmade objects, in response to mass produced, factory made items.

From an archaeologist's perspective, just about every object at every archaeological site that predates the industrial revolution was made by a craftsperson. That's how I became involved with craft. The majority of artifacts that we find at precontact sites in North America are stone tools and in an attempt to better understand crafts people working in the past, I inadvertantly became a craftsperson working in the present.

Sometimes it bugs me that flintknapping had vanished as a craft by the time folks like William Morris and other pioneers in the Arts and Crafts movement set the ball rolling for the modern craft resurgence. We started making stone tools 2.5 million years ago and for the next 2,499,000 years humans and all our ancestors used them daily, but flintknapping never gets a mention on any Arts and Crafts role calls. Wallpaper does though. Right place, right time -- congratulations wallpaper. Sorry you weren't around for the discovery of fire and the whole populating the globe thing, but congratulations just the same.

Bit of a tangent there, apologies to any printmakers working in wallpaper. Anyhow, here's a couple items I've come across recently that have some craft and archaeology overlap.

Earliest Pottery: Recently reported finds in China push back the origins of pottery by 1,000 years. The Oldest Pottery dates to 18,000 BP (before present). This is a bit of coup for China -- up until now Japan has had the oldest pottery in the world.

Earliest Venus: A very old, perhaps the oldest, venus figurine was discovered in a cave in Germany recently. The Venus of Hohle Fels is a particularily naughty bit of art carved in mammoth ivory and dates to at least 35,000 BP. Carved with stone tools in a wallpaperless cave, but I digress...

This last one might be of interest to the local textile artists. Here are a couple of images from Park's Canada's report on the underwater excavations of the 16th century Basque whaling ship at Red Bay, Labrador. They found fragments of a heddle, which is a kind of rigid loom for weaving. The Parks publication goes into much more detail on how these things were used. Its a five volume set, and the second volume is dedicated to the artifacts found in the excavation. Its very well illustrated and does a good job of explaining what the artifacts were used for and how they were made. There are lots of good photos and drawings of wood, metal, ceramic, and leather artifacts that could probably provide craftspeople with some interesting inspiration for cultural products.

Photo Credits:
Top, David Cohen
Middle Left, H. Jensen, Uni of Tubingen
Middle Right, The Mary Rose Trust/Parks Canada
Bottom, The Mary Rose Trust/D. Kappler, Parks Canada

Photo Captions:
Top, Early Chinese Pottery from Yuchanyan Cave, China
Middle Left, The Venus of Hohle Fels
Middle Right, A Heddle in use. This illustration appears in The Underwater Archaeology of Red Bay, Vol 2, Edited by Robert Grenier, Marc-Andre Bernier and Willis Stevens. Parks Canada 2007.
Bottom, The heddle fragments from Red Bay, compared to a complete heddle found on the Mary Rose. Also found in The Underwater Archaeology of Red Bay

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